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Vibrance vs Saturation in Photography: The Essential Guide

vibrance vs saturation: a guide

What is vibrance? What is saturation? And when should (or shouldn’t) you use these post-processing tools to enhance your photos?

Vibrance versus saturation can be a confusing topic, one that causes a major headache for Lightroom beginners. But it doesn’t have to be complicated, and in this article, we break it all down for you.

Specifically, you’ll discover:

  • An easy-to-understand vibrance definition
  • An easy-to-understand saturation definition
  • Plenty of visual examples showing how these adjustments affect your photos
  • A quick guide explaining when to use one (or both) tools

So if you finally want to learn the difference between these two editing tools, then read on!

What is saturation?

Saturation simply boosts the intensity of all the colors in a photo. It intensifies the greens, it intensifies the reds, it intensifies the yellows, it intensifies the oranges, and more.

Here’s an image with no added saturation:

boat on the water saturation

And here’s the same image, but with the saturation cranked up to 100:

heavily saturated image of a boat on the water

(It’s an extreme example, and it looks horrible, I know. It’s just for illustration purposes.)

Now, pretty much every post-processing program includes a Saturation slider. Here it is in Lightroom Classic:

Saturation slider in Lightroom

And boosting the saturation is as simple as pushing the Saturation slider upward. (You’re also free to drop the saturation, which will turn your photo black and white.)

What is vibrance?

Vibrance is often referred to as “smart saturation,” because it intensifies colors – but it does so more selectively. Specifically, vibrance boosts colors that are more muted. And it mostly ignores warmer colors (yellows, oranges, and reds), while prioritizing cooler colors (blues and greens).

Here’s the image featured above, once again with no adjustments:

boat on the water

And here’s the same image, but with the vibrance pushed to 100:

boat on the water with lots of vibrance

Note that the greens of the water and the blues in the mountains and sky become insanely intense, while the yellows and oranges in the mountain and the boat are only boosted slightly.

Here, Lightroom is trying to avoid skin tones; vibrance lets you increase the colors of an image without creating unnatural, oversaturated portraits. That’s why portrait photographers are big fans of vibrance, and why vibrance is often more useful than saturation, especially when people are in the frame.

Here’s the Vibrance slider in Lightroom Classic:

Vibrance slider in Lightroom

Vibrance vs saturation: what you should know (+ examples)

At this point, you should be roughly familiar with the differences between vibrance and saturation (in Lightroom and otherwise): Saturation boosts all the colors, while vibrance boosts muted colors and cooler colors, not skin tones.

But I’d like to offer a few more examples to make the effect even clearer. First, a standard portrait with rather subdued colors:

portrait of a woman at sunset

Then the same portrait, but with the Lightroom Saturation slider pushed to 100:

highly saturated portrait of a woman at sunset

Finally, the same portrait, but with the Saturation slider set to 0 and the Vibrance slider pushed to 100:

woman at sunset with lots of vibrance

As you can see, the oversaturated version looks unpleasant and garish, while the vibrance-adjusted version is significantly more palatable. I would never recommend boosting the Saturation slider or the Vibrance slider to 100, but you could push the Vibrance slider to 35 or so and get a nice result:

more subtly edited portrait of a woman

Here’s another image, which features both a person and a landscape:

woman sitting on a rock overlooking a lake

Based on what you learned above, you might expect +100 Saturation to create crazy skin tones, and you’d be right:

woman sitting on a rock overlooking a lake with lots of saturation

The sky and the lake are boosted, too, of course, but not on the same level.

And then we have another version, set to +100 Vibrance:

woman sitting on a rock overlooking a lake with lots of vibrance

Interestingly, while the skin tones are more muted, the sky and water actually appear more saturated than in the oversaturated version above – so if you’d prefer to intensify cool tones over warm tones, vibrance is the better bet.

When (and how) should you use saturation on a photo?

In general, I recommend you use saturation subtly. Yes, it’s a nice way to make your photos pop, but it’s very easy to go too far – and end up with a garish, even nauseating, result.

So when you’re faced with a new image, try boosting the saturation in increments of +5 and see how it looks. You’ll rarely need to go over +20 or so (and if you do increase the saturation beyond +20, pause and consider before continuing; try hitting the “\” key to see the before and after version).

I often subtly boost the saturation on images full of bright colors, especially if those images don’t include people (remember, saturation really intensifies skin tones!). So if I’m editing a nice landscape, a sunset, or a flower close-up, the Saturation slider is often my go-to tool.

However, if my photo includes people, I’ll often focus on vibrance instead, as I explain in the next section.

When (and how) should you use vibrance on a photo?

Vibrance is great for photos with people – as you know, it prevents oversaturated skin tones – so whenever you’re editing a portrait, I’d recommend increasing the vibrance.

You can also use the Vibrance slider when faced with more subtle landscape and flower images. Maybe you want to add a bit of pop while keeping the intensity to a minimum; if so, vibrance will serve you well.

Still, you should apply vibrance carefully. Don’t boost it all at once, and feel free to use the method I recommended for saturation adjustments, where you increase the slider by increments of +5 each time.

Vibrance plus saturation: the experimental method

While it’s useful to know what saturation and vibrance mean, most photographers don’t know exactly what they want to do to a photo in Lightroom before they do it.

Which is where a more experimental method of boosting colors comes into play.

Instead of thinking carefully about vibrance and saturation, it’s often a good idea to simply test the waters. First, boost the Vibrance slider and see what happens. If the result looks bad, drop it back down.

Then boost the Saturation slider and see what happens. Work in small increments, of course, and monitor your photo. When you reach a result that you like, keep it.

In fact, many photographers work this way. Sometimes, they end up using both vibrance and saturation together for a great edit. Other times, they end up dialing in negative saturation (i.e., desaturation) or negative vibrance to get the look they’re after.

So don’t be shy – go where your eye takes you!

Vibrance vs saturation: final words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you know what vibrance means, what saturation means, and why you might want to use one editing tool over the other.

Plus, you know how to approach an image for the best possible results.

So find an image or two, then test out your Vibrance and Saturation sliders. See what you get. And have fun!

Now over to you:

What do you think about vibrance and saturation? Which do you prefer? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Elizabeth Halford
Elizabeth Halford

is a photographer and advertising creative producer in Orlando, FL. She wrote her first article for dPS in 2010. Her most popular one racked up over 100k shares!

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